Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TOP STORY >> Kamikaze survivor lives to 100

Leader staff writer

John Derickson, the owner and co-founder of Hiwasse Manufacturing in Jacksonville, turned 100 years old on Thursday.

Family, friends, employees and former workers enjoyed a picnic lunch at the plant to celebrate Derickson’s birthday. He is known to many of his employees simply as “Mr. D.”

Derickson founded the company more than 65 years ago.

The North Little Rock resident drove to his plant on Redmond Road every day, until a stroke slowed him down two years ago.

“I’ve lived a simple life. I don’t drink. In the Navy, I drank a little beer. I am happy I got to make it to 100. I would like to make it to 101, but it is up to God. I can’t complain. I’ve had a good life,” Derickson said. His mother, Hilda, lived to be 102 years old.

Derickson continued, “I am quite religious, believe in God. He has been good to me. I intend to live a Christian life for the rest of my days.”

When he was younger, Derickson traveled extensively, including a trip to China, he said.

Derickson has been married to his wife, Jerrie, for 59 years and has three children. He was born in Red Wing, Minn., on Aug. 22, 1913.

Derickson remembered his parents leaving for Arkansas in a covered wagon.

His family moved to Leslie in Searcy County when he was a youngster. Derickson graduated high school in 1930 and would have attended college but, his son Richard explained, the Great Depression hit.

Instead Derickson went to trade school in Chicago to learn about the electrical field. He worked for Burgess Battery Company.

During World War II, Derickson joined the Navy at age 28 after learning his parents received a letter from the Selective Service.

He was an electrician specialist on a destroyer in the Pacific during the war, where he survived a Kamikaze attack on the ship. Japanese pilots killed themselves as they slammed into U.S. ships out of desperation.

Derickson said a gunner hit the plane, and the plane broke apart as it hit the back of the ship.

“I put four years in the Navy. I had some really close calls. It was me or someone else,” he said.

The war ended just a few weeks before his 32nd birthday.

Derickson retired as a chief. He also wears a cap that says he is a Kamikaze survivor.

In 1946, after the war, Derickson became a sales representative for Thurman Supply Company in Little Rock.

He met his business partner, Roy Hackett, when they roomed together at a house in Little Rock.

The two began their business in 1947. Hackett lived in Jacksonville, and that is where the company was located.

The business was set up in an old carpentry shop where city hall stands today.

According to the company’s website, Hiwasse is a Cherokee word for pleasant place or sunny spot.

At the beginning, Derick-son and Hackett wanted to make lawn furniture, but steel was not available. They used aluminum instead to make a variety of products, including caskets, pogo sticks, travel trailers and awnings.

Hiwasse’s main product today is producing trim and decorative pieces for washers, dryers, stoves, ovens and portable kitchens for appliance manufacturers such as GE and Maytag.

Derickson’s son, Richard, is the company’s president.

“I am lucky I have Richard. We need more business.Richard is working, but if half is what is promised, we’ll have plenty,” Derickson said.

Hiwasse has 23 employees but hopes to rehire some later this year when the economy improves and demand for new appliances increases.

David Norman of Little Rock worked at Hiwasse 47 years. He said he is semi-retired, helping to take care of Derickson.

“It’s been a good job, made money for my family. I went through the ups and the downs of the business,” Norman said.

He added that Derickson treated his employees well.

One of the highlights of Thursday’s celebration was an energetic performance by a lithesome belly dancer.

Derickson said, “She was unbelievably good. We had a belly dancer 20 years ago (for my 80th birthday), but she was not in the class as this one here.”

Jacksonville aldermen Kenny Elliott and Bill Howard presented Derickson with a ceremonial key to the city during the lunch.